The Smartest Test Takers I Know

By April 19, 2015 June 28th, 2018 ACT, College Admission Requirements, College Counseling, SAT

The-Smartest-Test-TakersStrong scores are not the only way to spot the smartest test takers among us. I encounter such students every day, and they stand out from the crowd in 5 key ways.

Cultivating these important traits will help sophomores understand how their behavior and mindset over the next year can produce successful testing outcomes and actually take advantage of the changes confronting the class of 2017.

The Smartest Test Takers I Know

It’s been an eventful year, literally. My partners at Compass and I have spoken at 100+ college admission events around the country, as thirst for strategic guidance on testing is greater than ever. Class of 2017 families put in the crosshairs of the fast-approaching SAT changes have been contemplating how to reconcile their personal timelines and decisions with those of the College Board. At every presentation — from high school College Nights to faculty workshops to college counselor conferences — our purpose has been to help folks contextualize these changes, individualize their plans, and chart a simplified course for the year ahead.

At one event — last spring’s Annual Conference for the Western Association For College Admission Counseling — I titled my session Behavioral Truths of Confident College Applicants. I was the testing expert and my co-presenter was a college counselor and former college admission officer. We examined the role of individual behavior and what specific behaviors we observe on a daily basis that let students navigate college admission and testing with a posture of confidence. While representing different dimensions of the college journey, we drew on a shared philosophy that places preparedness, thoughtfulness, and accountability at the center of a successful college experience. Our premise was that when students understand deeply what they are currently doing and why, suddenly individual behavior becomes the best predictor of success.

Affirming that theory, the smartest test takers from the class of 2017 are already emerging. No, I’m not talking about their test scores — not yet, at least. I’m talking about their behaviors. As sophomores transition to juniors, the ones destined for optimal testing outcomes share a few notable characteristics.

They Are Pragmatic

The smartest test takers I know neither underestimate nor overestimate the importance of testing in the college admission process. They remain grounded and sensible about it, unaffected by the hype and uninfluenced by the emotions of others. Rather than letting fear or self-pity set the tone of the year ahead, these students will matter-of-factly accept testing as a relevant — but not all-consuming or defining — component of their high school record. Pragmatic students move on quickly to determining how to make testing serve their needs rather than dash their dreams. Pragmatists make no room for defeatism in their lives.

They Are Planners

Great planners use calendar as a verb. All smart test takers calendar well, and they start by counting backwards from the fall of senior year. Poor planners (and bad advisors), in contrast, tend to disregard real-world timelines and merely think in terms of “taking” tests — isolated events aimlessly scattered across school years. Savvy students, meanwhile, work backwards from test dates so that proper preparation and reaction timelines can take shape. They first frame their entire testing window and then sketch in what they already know — or reasonably expect — will occupy their lives during that period. I guided one sophomore through this exercise today, and she arrived at a tailored, yet fairly common, starting game plan. Hers looks like this:

– Take a proctored diagnostic ACT after school ends in June.

– Receive individualized, foundational ACT preparation this summer. [One 90-minute private lesson per week — with assignments between lessons — feels reasonable to her.]

– Take a follow-up practice ACT at the end of summer to help determine when she will take her first official ACT.

– Take the redesigned PSAT on October 14th (at school) to help determine her comfort level with the redesigned SAT.

Given the pedagogical dovetailing of the ACT and new SAT, the foundational ACT preparation this summer will serve this student well and allow her to keep options open. She may feel poised to take an ACT in the fall (September or October), or she may opt to delay that until the winter (December) or early spring (February) to get part of junior year’s coursework beneath her and to refresh her test preparation. For others, it may be smart to start preparation in the fall or winter and target tests in April or June.

She may also come to conclude that her summer effort prepared her nearly enough for what the new SAT has planned for her. In that case, she may take the new SAT (likely, March, May, or October) with only a modest amount of SAT-specific preparation. She anticipates Subject Tests will be in her mix, too, and has wisely earmarked next June for those. She has at least four candidate subjects in mind based on next year’s courses and will take practice tests next April to zero in on her strongest ones.

By the end of next June, she’ll know her GPA through junior year; she’ll have one (or two) official ACT scores; she’ll have her Subject Tests completed. Having refined her college list by then, she’ll enter the summer by taking honest inventory of where things stand and will decide if re-testing in the fall is necessary. Even if she chooses to apply early somewhere, she knows she can — and may need to — test in September (ACT) or October (new SAT) of senior year to reach her goals.

They Are Resilient

Like the student mentioned above, smart test takers map out a plan early but are willing to make small course corrections as they navigate their path. While staying nimble, they are also able to remain persistent. They trust the thoughtful guidance they’ve received, they make rational and informed decisions, and they stay focused on long-term attainable goals they’ve set for themselves. They know test preparation is hard work that involves some frustration and disappointment. A sub-par score along the way won’t derail them. Testing is not a box smart students try to check off the list as soon as possible. Instead, it is deliberately integrated into the overall process of getting ready for college — affording students time to grow into their scoring potential.

They Are Drivers

Occasionally, students call our offices themselves. Poised and articulate as they ask great questions about our approach, they reveal themselves as some of the most engaged, no-nonsense test takers we know. Appropriately self-interested, these students are in search of expertise and first-rate support. As busy teens already managing full plates, they grasp the concept of opportunity cost. So while they are willing to invest time and effort to gain control of these tests, they have no tolerance for gimmicks.

The latest gimmick — cooked up by the largest couple of test prep empires — is the so-called hybrid (and now tri-brid!) test. Recklessly billed as worthwhile time-savers, these concoctions may make good advertising but deliver nothing in the way of reliable diagnostic insight. By blending flavors, a hybrid test bears a superficial resemblance to parts of different tests (ACT, current SAT, future SAT), but it is in fact more of a casserole of question types that breaks all the rules and equates to a potluck testing experience. Lots of empty test taking calories with no nutritional value. Smart test takers (and counselors) know to eschew such novelties and steer clear of anybody who promotes an all-you-can-eat testing diet. Given the availability of authentic sample tests written by the actual testing organizations, smart test takers will refine their testing palates by sticking only to those psychometrically superior diagnostic and practice resources.

They Are Sensible

The most rational students don’t get fazed by rumors surrounding the new SAT — especially ones that defy common sense. Old or new, the SAT (and ACT) will always be a measure of relative standing. The smartest test taker, therefore, understands that he or she is not the only one affected by this transition and trusts that the College Board will have a fair test in place. That said, sensible students would not allow their individual testing plans to be compromised by a multi-year rollout of a public policy decision. As one student recently reflected to me, “From everything I’ve read, the new SAT sounds like it’s going to be a good test. I’m just not sure the timing is going to work for me.”

He’s not alone in his thinking. The current SAT is sticking around through January, but primarily for the class of 2016 to re-test as seniors. Meanwhile, the new SAT will likely hit its stride with the class of 2018. For this transitional class of 2017, common sense says to make alternate plans. Indeed, the new SAT may temporarily fall victim to an old SAT test-taking strategy: process of elimination. Although this class will have three tests to choose from, there are practical limitations to consider:

– The current SAT, and virtually all its DNA, is facing extinction before most students are ready to take their first official test. While there is still time to prepare for the current SAT, there won’t be time on the backend to stay with this test long enough to reach one’s goals. And because the test is changing so significantly, nearly all preparation for the expiring test will be a sunk cost with little long-term application. Of course, for the handful of extraordinarily skilled test takers who can confidently post entirely satisfying scores by January, there is little to worry about.

– The new SAT may have a bright future, but it has no history. Smart and sensible test takers rely on the history of a test to ready themselves; they learn from what has come — and those who have gone — before. Despite the promise of summer sample tests, free Khan Academy resources, and a new PSAT, the College Board’s research team needs every minute between now and March (and weeks, months, and years beyond then) to bring this brand new test to fruition. The March administration is not the end game, but rather an important early step in a rollout that will continue well after the class of 2017 is in college. Vital psychometric work — from possible re-centering to setting concordance to conducting validity studies — still needs to happen and takes time. Operational issues, like the re-training of proctors and essay graders, need to be ironed out. PSAT and March SAT scores are likely to be delayed. The class of 2017’s expert planners — those pragmatic drivers of this process — are accounting for all of this. While not completing eliminating the current SAT and new SAT as choices, they are giving favorable consideration to the ACT as — in standardized testing terms — “the best answer”.

Common sense also serves students well when they ponder the important question of how colleges are preparing for this impacted class. Sensible students realize that colleges don’t admit them, humans do. We call them admission officers — not denial officers — for a reason. And not coincidentally, the college admission officers I know possess all of the traits I’ve unpacked above. They are accomplished forecasters and decision-makers, so it stands to reason that they, too, are pragmatic, sensible, and knowledgably engaged. They like information and reliable data; they understand context; and they look to the past to predict the future.

Colleges, therefore, won’t constrain themselves by eliminating choices. As the ultimate end-users of test scores, colleges are facing a corresponding transition and will behave rationally to keep options open. To be clear, colleges will accept any and all test scores — old SAT, new SAT, and/or ACT — from the class of 2017. Many colleges have already officially stated this; the rest eventually will. Even allowing for a shift to the ACT and a last-minute push for the old SAT, at least 1.5 million students from the class of 2017 will take close to 3 million new SATs. No college is capable of ceding so many students to other institutions.

Colleges will have enough acceptable evidence by then (mostly through College Board field-testing and comparability studies involving college freshman and the class of 2016) that will link old and new SAT scores via a concordance. They will also be given a synthetic concordance that links SAT and ACT scores. Accepting – and fairly weighing – current SAT, ACT, and new SAT scores is the smartest choice for building the best possible class. A liberal policy also lays the groundwork for the future. Admission offices ultimately must discard much of what they know about the current SAT, and quickly learn the new SAT. Admitted students from the class of 2017 will provide the basis for colleges’ own validity studies.

So, in the end, sensible test takers realize that colleges will support their choices – not as lip service, but as a purposeful decision in the colleges’ best interests.

Who Will Be the Smartest Test Takers in the Class of 2017?

It’s impossible to stay ahead of all the information — not to mention the misinformation — swirling around us about college admission testing. The smartest students I know won’t try to do so. They’ll instead strive to simplify this exercise by driving the process, mapping a course of action, and remaining focused, resilient, confident, and sensible. They’ll identify what hurdles lie ahead, and they’ll take them in stride. They’ll seek out first-rate expertise and guidance and ignore the rest. Watch for these students — their behavior gives them away.

Bruce Reed

About Bruce Reed

Bruce graduated from Colby College and has served in leadership roles in education for more than 20 years. Bruce founded our Northern California office in 2004 where he continues to serve as its hands-on leader while also guiding our Southern California team in his broader role as Compass’ Executive Director. Bruce is recognized throughout the Bay Area and beyond as a visionary and passionate voice in the realm of teaching, testing, and educational development. His extensive experience in one-on-one test preparation, college admissions, and professional development makes him a trusted resource for parents and counselors.


  • Avatar Sheetal Seth says:

    Hi Bruce,
    An articulate article. Well written and broken down to very simple basic steps for a student from the class of 2017. It gives us a clear path which we are about to embark. Thank you for that.

  • Avatar Lloyd Paradiso says:

    This article is not only extremely helpful, chock full of sensible, actionable advice, but it is brilliantly written. What a pleasure to read an educator who can actually command the language and so articulately! I look forward to reading more of your generous contributions to the work we all do.
    Lloyd Paradiso

  • Avatar Sara Fargo says:

    Hi Bruce,

    This is an excellent article, worthy of sharing with many of my families!
    Thank you!


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